By Dr. Jill Berry- Director at J Berry Associates and Leadership Development Consultant.
I loved being a leader in education. I started my career as a secondary school English teacher in a state school in the UK, and over the next 30 years I was fortunate to take on a range of leadership roles: pastoral and academic; in maintained and independent schools; at Middle Leadership, Senior Leadership and Headship level. I worked in six excellent schools with a range of committed and highly capable colleagues, from whom I learnt a great deal. I also learnt a fair amount from some negative leadership role-models along the way…
Since stepping back from headship after ten years in the role, I have completed a Doctorate about Educational Leadership (moving from deputy to head); written a book about it (Making The Leap – Crown House Publishing) and carried out a range of leadership development work, supporting aspiring and serving leaders at all levels. That has been a privilege.
I am fully aware of how challenging leadership can be – and the recent pandemic tested the adaptability and resilience of our educational leaders as never before. It seemed to me that the educational institutions which navigated the pandemic most positively were those in which leadership was strong, and those which struggled most were in some cases organisations where the leadership was already showing signs of fracture. We need to invest in our leaders: to recognise early potential; to nurture and grow it; and then to continue to support, lift and inspire our school leaders at every stage of their journey. All leaders need to understand how to pace and protect themselves so that their leadership is sustainable, and that they don’t burn brightly for a short time, and then burn out.
There is no silver bullet, here. Everyone has to find their own way of making leadership over the long-term work for them. But I would suggest that every leader has to accept that finding a reasonable, sustainable balance is crucial, and that working to the exclusion of all else in their lives is not indicative of the most dedicated, committed and successful leadership strategies. We need to be aware of how we model leadership to those who are on the receiving end of it; do we communicate opportunity and joy in leadership, or are we unwittingly deterring future leaders because all they see is the stress, responsibility, or burden? Yes, leadership can be demanding, but it also gives us the chance to achieve so much for the students and communities we serve and for the colleagues we work with and through. The work can be hard but the rewards are rich.
So, no silver bullets, but a few things leaders at all levels might think about:
- Carving out time for reflection is key, however you choose to do this. What do you think about the balance in your life and, if there is a need to recalibrate, how might you begin to go about this? Asking yourself some fundamental questions about your priorities, your habits, what drives you and what perhaps should drive you, can be salutary. Recording your reflections over time, and any new commitments you make to yourself (and to those who depend on you) can strengthen your resolve and your capacity to rebalance if that is necessary. This may be of use: Reimagining the Diary: Reflective practice as a positive tool for educator wellbeing – John Catt Bookshop UK.
- Engaging the services of an external coach, someone not connected to your current role or institution, who is not a colleague, an employer or a governor, can be an excellent way of finding perspective and release. A coach should support you as you think through, and talk through, the pressures you are under and the strategies you might employ. There are organisations which can help you to find a coach (for example, for women leaders: Women Leaders in Education | WomenEd); there is online in addition to face-to-face coaching; online group coaching may also be productive. Find what will work best for you.
- Finally, accepting that we are all imperfect; that none of us is the finished article or has all the answers, that we need a network of others to connect with, collaborate with, learn from (and support) can help us to recognise that leadership doesn’t have to be isolating. We will make mistakes, learn from them, and grow as a result. We simply need to resolve to do a little better tomorrow. Reading this may help: Imperfect Leadership – Crown House Publishing
I wish you well.
Former school head, now leadership development consultant
To connect with Jill, go to the following:
LinkedIn: (24) Dr Jill Berry | LinkedIn